Portrait of the Artist as a D-Day Veteran

Editor’s note: Ugo Giannini of New Jersey was a promising illustrator before he was drafted to fight in World War II. An MP with the 29th Division, he was in the first wave at Omaha Beach and sketched the gruesome scene before him from a bomb crater. In the months that followed, he fulfilled his duties, wrote letters home and continued drawing what he saw in the Allied march to victory in Europe. As the journey wore on, his condition deteriorated. Giannini’s story resumes here, as the 29th presses toward Germany in the winter of 1944-1945.

The 29th pushed into occupied villages of the Rhineland that late fall, as winter drew near, transofrming rain and mud to bitter cold and snow. A self-portrait reveals Ugo Giannini's exhaustion and eys that don't seem focused on anything in particular. His letters weave in and out of the scenes he witnessed, conditions they endured and his longing to come home.

The 29th kept moving, rooting out German forces west of the Roer River, reinforcing divisions in the Battle of the Bulge. When mail came, it was delayed two months or more. Spans of loneliness in the cold were interrupted only by firefights and small-arms battles. Ugo continued to write letters, most of which he did not send. His anguish grew, but to his mother, the news was always upbeat. He wrote to her that he had been granted a 48‑hour leave in Brussels, where “I knocked myself out in cabarets and hotels. I was sailing high most of the time.”

From January into February, the frozen war front moved easterly, and Ugo wrote to his family and Rene, whose affection he pursued throughout the campaign. In one letter, dated Feb. 23, 1945, he abruptly proposed marriage to her. Two days later, he received a long-delayed letter from her, cutting it all off.

It is too late to retract the venom you have spilled upon me. I am ill with the oppression of nine months’ battle. I am ill with shock and shattered nerves.

Deeper into Germany, enemy resistance weakened. Giannini illustrated the division’s after-action reports and wrote one of his own March 2, 1945. “Julich completely leveled, smoking ruins, the gray color of battle shrouds every scene. Roads bad, muddy, town with bomb craters and artillery shells.”

Intermittent battles with the retreating Germans ultimately led the division to Nazi concentration camps where the soldiers liberated thousands of starving survivors.

Giannini, despite inner turmoil, faithfully fulfilled his duties as an MP, which now included evacuating the camp prisoners, along with traffic control, security for the command post and investigations. 

In later years, his future wife Maxine spoke with veterans who had served with her husband. “Oh, Ugo… how I loved that man,” one told her. “He was beloved in the military.”

From the west bank of the Elbe River, the 29th could see Germans waving white flags. Ordered to stay in place, their march soon ended. Hitler was dead. Berlin was taken. Germany surrendered. And Giannini was finally free to write uncensored letters describing in greater detail moments he could not previously have reported.

“I still can’t quite grasp it,” he wrote to Rene, trying to salvage the relationship. “How did I come through it without a scratch?”

He later asked in a letter from Germany for her phone number, so he could call her immediately upon his return.

When that day finally came, whatever lifelong commitment he envisioned with Rene did not materialize. “I don’t think the relationship was what he thought it was,” Maxine says. “I think she had another agenda. The older brother, Richard, wrote a scathing letter: ‘She’s not what you think she is.’”

For the two years he was in the war, however, “it was the only thing he held on to,” Maxine says. “I think that was typical for many of the guys – that one person they loved, who gave them hope.”

When he returned to New Jersey, Ugo’s mother wanted to know what the war had done to her son. He was not the same.

I’ve lived a thousand lives and died many ... I have none of the values and relative perspectives, which civilians abide by.

“When he came back from the war, he did not get a driver’s license,” Maxine says. “He would not put his name on a piece of paper. He didn’t want anyone to know where he was. He was so wounded by what happened to him, he never wanted to be entrapped again. He didn’t want to have children. He didn’t want to get married.”

Giannini used his GI Bill benefits to attend the Art Students League in New York City and was later one of five from the school who went to Paris and studied under the French painter and World War I veteran Fernand Léger, an internationally acclaimed Picasso-influenced pioneer of modern art. “If not for the GI Bill, he would never have had the opportunity,” Maxine explains. “He became close to Léger because Léger was also a soldier. When he was in Paris after the war, with Léger, he couldn’t take his boots off, or his khaki pants. That was what he wore to class.”

During that time, Giannini was noticed by a documentary filmmaker named Tom Van Dyke, who asked about the attire. “He asked, ‘What are you doing in those shoes – combat boots?’ He said he was in Normandy.” Van Dyke then took Giannini to the beaches and filmed him there discussing the D-Day invasion. The film was made, Maxine says, “but when he came here for the fifth anniversary of D-Day, they confiscated the film at customs. They thought this guy was running pornography or something.” The film disappeared.

Ugo later met Maxine – 10 years younger – and openly discussed the lost Rene. “He talked about the conflict and the unresolved quality of this. Finally, I said, ‘Ugo, when you came home, you had ample opportunity to get together with her. Something stopped you. And you have to own that.’”

His reluctance to marry nearly ended his relationship with Maxine. After she went to France for three months on her own, she came back, and he had had a change of heart. They married, struggled at first to make ends meet, raised a family, and he finally got a contract to teach art at Caldwell College in New Jersey. He taught there for the next 27 years, and continued to paint, often alone, never intending to show his secret work to anyone. “Art was where he lived,” Maxine says.

Combat had taken residence in his paintings. He had mentioned that one day he would like to do a book about his time in the war, but that day did not come while he was living. Other than passing references by day and nightmares he could not shake at night, the war stayed inside him.

“What I remember was this terrible nightmare where he was screaming. There is actually a picture of it in the book (“Drawing D-Day: An Artist’s Journey Through War” Dover, 2019) where he was on patrol at night in Germany ... and found the decapitated head of his friend who had gone out earlier in the day. That was an excruciating memory for him, all of his life. One of his nightmares was the landing. Every day I went to the hospital the last month of his life, he was landing on Omaha Beach, and screaming, ‘Get away from that! Get away from that obstacle! You’re going to get hit! You’re going to get shot!’”

Around the time of the 40th anniversary of D-Day, in 1984, Giannini had been asked by some other 29th Division veterans to go with them to France. “Ugo could not return, whatever the reasons – emotional, physical, psychological,” Maxine wrote in the preface to “Drawing D-Day.” “But it was then that his longest journey back to Omaha and the events of World War II began.” He read books about the campaign and gave a lecture before a business group; soon symbols and images of the war began to appear in his art, and he was willing to show some of it. 

In 1992, the couple planned to visit Normandy and made it as far as Paris, when Ugo became sick with what they thought was pneumonia. “The doctors said, he not only has pneumonia, but he has pulmonary fibrosis. You’d better get him to a doctor when you go home. They said, ‘He’s not going to die here, but he is not going to get better from this.’” He would not make it back to the beaches that had occupied a half-century of his conscience.

In the years after his death, Maxine researched Ugo’s journey, traveled to France, talked with veterans, read after-action reports and fulfilled her goal to put the images – and excerpts from his letters – into one book. Through the project, she finally came to know her husband of 37 years. She hopes the collection of original drawings and paintings will someday have a permanent home in a museum.

“What he expresses is the inexpressible,” she explains. “The men said all hell broke loose. You see the hell in his drawings, his interior response to the war – what human beings are capable of. I don’t think there is anything like this. This is who I lived with, this incredible artist.”  

Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.